Colombian Trade Unionists and U.S. Foreign Policy
More trade unionists are killed in Colombia than in all other countries combined. In 2006, 72 trade unionists were assassinated bringing the total of trade unionists killed in Colombia since 1991 to more than 2,200. Armed right-wing paramilitary groups have been responsible for the majority of the murders, in cases where the assailants are known. Colombian paramilitary groups are linked to the Colombian military and are also on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
The U.S. has sent over $4.7 billion of tax payer to Colombia since 2000, 80% of which was military and police aid. This massive amount of aid has been provided to the Colombian military and police despite known links between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups who continue to assassinate Colombian trade unionists.
The Senate has approved another $560 million for FY2008, continuing the massive support of the Colombian military despite the military’s outright violence against trade unionists. The Colombian state itself has been found responsible for a significant amount of the violence against trade unionists. In addition, the Colombian government has failed to investigate, prosecute and bring to justice those responsible for these murders. By granting impunity to those who assassinate trade unionists, the Colombian government is essentially furthering the race to the bottom by essentially legalizing assassination and violence against workers as methods to bust unions.
The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement has been negotiated between the U.S. and Colombia. U.S. and Colombian trade unions, along with much of civil society in the Andean region, oppose the FTA. As proposed, the FTA fails to protect labor rights and represents a huge step back from existing U.S. protections for worker rights under U.S. trade programs. If it is passed in its present form, it would greatly weaken U.S. leverage to improve respect for labor rights in Colombia.
Opposing U.S. Aid and Trade Policy in Colombia
- The U.S. must exercise extreme precaution in determining how to distribute foreign aid and expand trade with Colombia, as to not perpetuate the violent situation for trade unionists there. Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. In 2006, 72 trade unionists were assassinated bringing the total number of trade unionists killed in Colombia since 1991 to more than 2,200. Public sector workers such as teachers and health care providers are especially targeted, as are trade union leaders who denounce human rights violations.
- The U.S. should not approve massive amounts of aid to the Colombian military while it continues to collaborate with paramilitary terrorists. Most Colombian trade unionist murders are committed by paramilitary terrorists, in cases where the assailants are known. Paramilitary groups from Colombia are not only on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, but are also linked to the Colombian military. The Colombian state itself increased its attacks on labor unions by 204% between 2002 and 2004.
- U.S. foreign aid and trade programs should be conditioned on an end to impunity for those who assassinate Colombian trade unionists. Of the over 2,200 Colombian trade unionists murdered since 1991, less than 2% of the killers of Colombian trade unionists have been prosecuted. Of the nearly 400 trade unionists that have been killed since President Uribe took office in 2002, there have been convictions in only 10 cases.
- Any free trade agreement that does not include strong and effective mechanisms to protect labor and social rights should not be approved by Congress. The U.S.-Colombia, as signed, fails to protect labor rights and represents a step back from existing U.S. protections for worker rights under U.S. trade programs. If it is passed in its present form, it would greatly weaken U.S. leverage to improve respect for labor rights in Colombia.
- U.S. unions challenge support of the Colombian military. [This talking point should only be used with union-friendly members of Congress. Contact USLEAP if you need background on your particular member of Congress]. Unions such as AFSCME, CWA, SEIU, and UNITE HERE and other labor organizations have challenged U.S. support of the Colombian military because it contributes to violence against trade unionists. The U.S. labor movement and Colombia’s largest labor federation (CUT) oppose the FTA due to the negative impact on workers.
Response to Defense of Current U.S. Policy
Here are some arguments from defenders of current U.S. policy in Colombia and suggested responses:
They say: President Uribe’s policies are working, even on the issue you have raised: trade union murders have declined dramatically since he took office.
Response: Although levels of violence against trade unionist have fallen from their 2002 high of 184, Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist with more assassinations of trade unionists than the rest of the world combined. Moreover, murders are down since the Uribe government came in not because the government has sought to reduce human rights violations or prosecute killers but because paramilitary groups have gotten an amnesty for the thousands of murders they have already committed by negotiating a “peace” agreement that ignores past crimes. A lasting peace cannot be built on a foundation that doesn’t address justice and impunity. It is also important to note that more trade unionists were killed in Colombia in 2006 (72) than 2005 (70)
They say: Aren’t a lot of these murdered trade unionists really guerrillas?
Response: No. According to the National Labor College, whose information and data is used by the U.S. government and the International Labor Organization, most trade unionists are killed while performing normal trade union activities. But paramilitary groups view trade unions as extensions of guerilla groups and others are targeted for denouncing corruption in public institutions. Some businesses also use the cover of the civil war to recruit paramilitaries to attack their unions while some guerilla leaders view union leaders with hostility because they can’t control the unions.
They say: A free trade agreement with Colombia is important in bringing democracy to Colombia.
Response: By allowing the ongoing practice of murdering and threatening trade unionists, Colombia is turning its back on the rule of law, and its best hope for democratic growth. Signing a free trade agreement with Colombia, a country that has allowed and in some cases promoted, the elimination of trade unions, the U.S. is, in part, destroying Colombia’s opportunity to build a peaceful, just society where citizens can non-violently organize to protect their basic human rights. The U.S. should be instead using trade benefits as leverage for improving the situation for Colombian trade unionists by negotiating a free trade agreement that requires that Colombia 1) bring its laws in compliance with ILO standards, and 2) end impunity for those who attack and assassinate trade unionists.
They say: U.S. aid to the Colombian military and a Free Trade Agreement are necessary to reduce illegal drugs.
Response: Our drug problem cannot be solved until we deal with the demand side of the equation here in the U.S. Wiping out highly profitable coca production in one area will only cause it to shift somewhere else. Indeed, coca production in the Andean region has remained virtually steady despite the $5.6 billion of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars spent in eradication efforts since 1988. And the FTA could actually hurt the agricultural sector in Colombia and undermine efforts to promote alternative crops to coca, according to agricultural experts and farmers in Colombia concerned about the impact of opening Colombian agriculture to U.S. exports.
An Alternative to Current U.S. Policy:
What We Should Do Instead
U.S. policies towards Colombia should shift away from a primarily military and free trade solution to the conflict and instead seek to address root causes of injustice and insecurity. The U.S. should support:
Alternative development to help farmers switch to legal crops.
- A strengthening of the judicial system and the rule of law and respect for human rights;
- An end to impunity, including an end to impunity for those who murder trade unionists;
- Efforts to resume a peace process based on justice and reparations in any negotiated settlement;
- Trade policies based on fair trade that include input from all portions of civil society;
- Trade policies that protect worker and environmental rights, and;